Fire Prevention


The History of Fire Prevention Week

The inspiration behind the national recognition of Fire Prevention Week is the Great Chicago Fire of Oct. 9, 1871. Burning for nearly 27 hours, this fire killed more than 250 people, destroyed more than 17,400 buildings and left 100,000 homeless.

According to popular legend, the fire broke out after a cow -- belonging to Mrs. Catherine O'Leary -- kicked over a lamp, setting first the barn, then the whole city on fire. Chances are you've heard some version of this story yourself; people have been blaming the Great Chicago Fire on the cow and Mrs. O'Leary for more than 130 years. But recent research by a Chicago historian has helped to debunk this version of events.

The 'Moo' Myth

Cartoon of Cow

Like any good story, the “case of the cow” has some truth to it. The great fire almost certainly started near the barn where Mrs. O'Leary kept her five milking cows. But there is no proof that O'Leary was in the barn when the fire broke out, or that a jumpy cow sparked the blaze. Mrs. O'Leary herself swore that she'd been in bed early that night, and that the cows were also tucked in for the evening.

Forty years later, fire marshals across the country decided to recognize a fire prevention day, to educate the public and pass along valuable fire safety messages to prevent another great fire from occurring.

Finally in 1922, the nation’s fire officials decided to recognize an entire week in October — whichever week the ninth falls in — as Fire Prevention Week, and to encourage communities to use this time to learn more about preventing such fire tragedies large and small.

Firefighting's Weird History & Fascinating Future

Certain materials reproduced from NFPA’s Fire Prevention Week website, ©2014 NFPA.